Why do we preach? And should we…

Posted by on Jul 26, 2016 in Blog | 3 comments

My home church is Carey Baptist in Perth, and at present our night time service is asking some questions about basic church practices – like why we preach, take communion, worship, and others. I got to kick the series off by trying to answer the question, “why do we preach?” and it did feel a little strange to give a sermon about giving sermons. But overall it was a good experience and even seemed to mean something to some, so here the notes are. Hope it answers some of your questions, and if not, do post them…

It is alleged (probably incorrectly) that St Francis of Assisi once said: ‘Where ever you go, preach the Gospel. If necessary, use words.’ It is usually quoted by people who want to imply that deeds are what really matter, and that talk is cheap – and that sermons… well, who would trust a preacher?

We are an age that is suspicious of words and their genuineness… Last week we had the furore over Melania Trump’s speech at the Republican Party congress electing her husband as the presidential nominee. Her speech sounding so rousing and genuine and moving – until it was noted that it sounded remarkably like Michelle Obama’s speech from 8 years back… and there it was, the speech plagiarised, moving quotes lifted directly without any acknowledgment, with the blame being taken by Mrs Trump’s speechwriter… and even that says it all. You mean she doesn’t even write her own speech? So does she mean any of it? You can see why we have become pretty cynical about words.

Should we then follow St Francis’ alleged advice – and simply go around doing good, adding words about Jesus only when absolutely necessary?

While I completely agree that we should do good, we must beware of falling into the either or trap… if you do one, you must not do the other… when a sensible reading of scripture makes it clear that we must do both.

So why preach?

Whenever you ask if a Christian or the church ought to do something, you should filter it through 3 lenses – scripture, the tradition of the church and the insight of contemporary culture.

Now don’t misunderstand me. They are not of equal importance – though they do all matter.

The first, scripture, is the most important. If you want to know if we should do something, first start with the Bible – what does it have to say about this?

Let’s look at today’s reading Romans 10:1-15, and especially note Paul’s argument in v 14-15. He is asking how people come to faith – and in this part he is particularly concerned with how Jewish people will come to faith. He writes: How then can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’ Note each step of logic in the questions Paul asks. In his mind there is a clear link between people needing to hear, and therefore people needing to preach, and therefore, people needing to be sent to preach.

It is not the only passage that links preaching to people coming to faith. Take the account of Jonah. Sent to Nineveh, his sermon was really short 40 days and Nineveh will be destroyed. A paltry 7 words – easy enough to be a scripture memory verse – though perhaps not inspiring enough. It is an unimaginative sermon – no cute stories or winsome moments of personal vulnerability, but the entire city repents – even the animals take part in the fast of repentance that follows… fancy that – preaching in such a way that even the cows respond! The point, of course, is not that Jonah was a brilliant preacher (he was anything but) but that God was in it… God using preaching to bring people to faith.

When we come to the New Testament, we discover first that the coming of Jesus is announced by a preacher – John the Baptist. In many ways he is the role model for all preachers, for his preaching is to prepare people to be open to Jesus… and that is what the best preaching does.

If you ask for New Testament examples of preaching, you can’t ignore the fact that Jesus was an itinerant preacher – often using parables to connect with the large crowds who came to listen to his preaching.

Then there is one example after another of the apostles preaching their hearts out – often at significant personal risk. Sometimes the response is great, as it is to Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost when 3000 come to faith (Acts 2:41); at other times it is far less impressive – as when Eutychus falls so soundly asleep when Paul is preaching in Troas that he falls off the window ledge where he had been sitting. It was on the third floor, so it was pretty serious. Actually he died – though a miracle then takes place and Paul is able to raise him from the dead… which shows that Paul didn’t hold grudges (‘he fell asleep during my sermon, no way I’m going to pray for him!’) and that while you shouldn’t fall asleep during the sermon, it is usually forgivable (Acts 20:7-12).

In short then, as we apply the first test: ‘does scripture tell us to do this’ – we find that the answer is yes… we are not just told to preach, we see preaching practiced by the prophets, by  Jesus, by the apostles and  in the life of the early church.

The second lens that we pass things though is the tradition of the church… has the church been doing this in her history.

Why does this matter? Well, we mustn’t be guilty of chronological snobbery, thinking that we are the only generation that has ever lived and that we are the only ones who understand what is what. God has been guiding the church for the last 2000 years. No – that is not to say that no mistakes have been made (and there have been some very serious ones), but it is to recognise that the Spirit is working the whole time, guiding the church. Jesus promised that when he left this earth he would send another counsellor, the Holy Spirit, who would guide us into all truth (John 14:15-18). And that is exactly what has happened. The Spirit has come. What am I saying? If the church has been doing something for a very long part of its history, it is probable that it is part of the way that the Spirit has been leading and a practice we should continue.

Has preaching been a part of the history of the church? Absolutely. The early monks would walk around the countryside preaching to all they came into contact with. St Francis, who has probably been misquoted about only using words if necessary, preached not only to people but to animals, exhorting them to follow God. And there are many periods in church history when God has specially used the preaching of some especially anointed people to bring hundreds of thousands to faith – Charles Finney, John Wesley, Dwight Moody, Billy Graham, to name a few.

However, while the examples I’ve just given were for preaching so that people would come to faith, the history of the church shows that preaching has also been used to teach, to encourage, to inspire, to reprimand and to guide. There has always been preaching aimed primarily at those who don’t yet know Jesus, and preaching for those who do. And the rough rule of thumb when preaching to those who do know Jesus is summed up in a prayer often used before a service starts: ‘God help me to comfort the disturbed and to disturb the comfortable.’ God uses preaching to do this… To reassure us that we are loved by the God of the Universe who has a plan and purpose for our life. And when that reassurance lapses into complacency, to challenge us to settle for nothing less than that purpose.

The third lens is culture. Now let’s be clear, I am not saying that culture should tell us what we should do. It should actually work the other way around. But often culture will alert us not to what we should do, but how we should do it. In other words, how should something be done in this time and place to be effective.

Cultural settings change. There have been times in history when people used to expect sermons to go on for hours. I originally come from Africa, and well remember sitting through a 3 hour sermon on a bitingly cold night in an only partially built auditorium. Everyone was huddled up in blankets – but no one expected the preacher to hurry along. There was something about that African setting that saw it as normal to keep on listening for that long. If it had happened in Australia, I doubt that many would have sat through the second hour, let alone the third.

People listen differently to the way they did a generation or two ago. In my grandparents era, if the preacher told stories about himself (and it almost certainly would have been a him then), they would have thought him presumptuous, arrogant and self promoting… and might well have snapped at him when leaving, ‘we came here to learn about Jesus, not you.’  But today if a preacher you don’t know just dives straight into preaching most people will wonder if they can trust him or her, and will often say things like, ‘until I know that I can trust you, I can’t trust what you say. Tell me about yourself, tell me about your life, let me see if I can relate to you as a person first.’ As a result, a lot of contemporary preachers spend a lot of time on amusing personal anecdotes. Previous generations would tut tut and say that takes away valuable teaching and preaching time.

It is not that the one is right and the other wrong… it is just a change of cultural context. And culture alerts us to subtle changes that we might need to make to ensure we have a hearing for what we say. The Bible is supportive of this. Do you remember Paul’s claim in 1 Cor 9:22 I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I may save some? He very positively claims to adapt to circumstances (often cultural circumstances) so that he can be as effective as possible.

Those of you who are budding preachers will have to work on this one – how do we preach to a postmodern world – a twitter, Instagram audience used to the briefest of messages. Truth is, it can be done. While some are claiming that the day of the talking head communicator is over, the popularity of TED talks is a reminder that a single communicator passing on a message still has great power. It is just done a little differently. Where do you think the idea behind TED talks came from? Thank 2000 years of church preaching for it.

So why do I preach?

All this may sound a little theoretical. Let me personalise a little. Why do I preach?

Whenever I preach, I am the first recipient of the message. If it doesn’t say anything to me, I know that the message is not ready yet. And I can truly say that over the years the person who has benefited from my preaching the most has been me. I have been challenged over and over to take as seriously what I am saying as I hope those listening will. And I have grown to love the Bible more and more in the process. It truly is a God inspired book. The Spirit brings it to life again and again and again as we try to unpack its pages.

But it has also made a difference in the lives of others.

I remember when finishing up at Rosebank Bible College a woman making an appointment to see me to thank me for my preaching at the colleges sponsoring church. ‘You said’ she reminded me, ‘that we should embrace each day that God gives us as a gift, and live it to the full. It came to me as a direct word from God. That week I had been told I have terminal cancer. I had seen myself as slowly fading away – quickly disengaging from life. But your words have kept coming to me… embrace each day as God given. I have been able to achieve so much. I went back to the oncologist this week. The cancer has spread a fair amount more, and I probably don’t have long at all – but I want to thank you. Because of your words, I have lived more since my cancer diagnosis than I did before.’ Wow… I didn’t even remember having said that… but God had used words I had forgotten to make a difference… A real difference.

And I have seen people come to faith. And I have seen attitudes change. And I have seen families commit to their marriage in new ways. And I have seen people being willing to trust God in fresh new ventures of faith. Preaching makes a difference.

In the past, people used to speak of unction – by which they meant those special times when the preachers words are more than words, but that God actually works through them to bring needed change. And when you preach you sense when those moments come. No, they are not every message. Some sermons are meat and potato sermons. Solid stuff, but nothing too memorable. Others are times when you sense the Spirit moving… and when that happens, you know like you know like you know, why you preach.

I have been talking about why preach… but you aren’t preaching tonight, you are listening. So why listen… because at its heart preaching believes that God is a God who communicates… a God who wants to meet with us to guide and direct and challenge and reassure and transform us. And strangely, when we open our hearts to what is being said, we hear God’s voice come to us.

And my prayer is that perhaps even tonight, in this sermon about sermons, that the God who speaks to us, will be speaking to you…

As always, nice chatting…

 

3 Comments

  1. Excellent. Thank you.

  2. Brilliant.
    Especially the part about the ‘unction’ of the Spirit. Oh my, I know what you mean.

  3. Fantastic. Always love reading your blogs

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